Ahern says he plans to revive privacy Bill

 

MINISTER FOR Justice Dermot Ahern has revived plans to introduce laws to protect the privacy of individuals, citing a “worrying trend in media intrusion in order to get a good story”.

A Privacy Bill introduced to the Oireachtas three years ago was parked by Mr Ahern’s predecessor Brian Lenihan in order to give the Press Council, set up in 2007, time to demonstrate its effectiveness in dealing with the issue.

Yesterday, however, Mr Ahern announced he planned to inject fresh momentum into the Bill by updating its provisions to reflect recent legal and technological developments.

Although the Bill is trenchantly opposed by the media industry, the Minister is seeking to reframe its provisions in wider terms. The violation of privacy was not the exclusive preserve of the media, he said, and many complaints over privacy now concerned actions by individual citizens against others.

“There seems to be a growing disregard for the privacy of the individual as a basic human right. The development of relevant technologies has played a part in this trend,” he told the launch of the first annual report of the Press Council of Ireland and the Press Ombudsman.

Newspapers have argued that privacy legislation would infringe press freedom, for example by enabling wealthy individuals to obtain court orders preventing investigation by a journalist.

However, the Minister said privacy legislation involved no threat to investigative journalism that sought to hold government, institutions of the State, business and other organisation up to scrutiny.

The Bill would “inhabit the space” between data protection Acts on the one hand, and security and crime provisions on the other. Mr Ahern said there was as yet no timeframe for the passing of the legislation.

Last year, Press Ombudsman Prof John Horgan ruled on a number of privacy disputes, including complaints against newspapers by the family of the late Katy French and the family of the late Tony Gregory TD.

Mr Ahern also said he hoped the Defamation Bill, which the media industry supports, would become law by the summer. This Bill gives statutory recognition to the Press Council and Press Ombudsman, and allows newspapers to offer an apology without risking an admission of liability.

The defamation legislation will also allow media to defend libel actions by arguing that publication was in the public interest. However, the Minister said he had misgivings about what constituted the public interest, and who would determine it.

The new defence would be difficult to plead successfully and would not lend itself readily to the “careless propagation of trivial or tabloid issues masquerading as being in the public interest”.

The chairman of the Press Council, Prof Tom Mitchell, said the likelihood that the Defamation Bill would become law within months was “wonderful news”. However, he cautioned against rushing any privacy legislation.

Mr Ahern, with Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Arts Martin Cullen, has long been a proponent of tighter privacy laws. For many in Fianna Fáil, privacy legislation is seen as a quid pro quo for passing the Defamation Bill.